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How fame and faith fit together

08 April 2022

Meeting the pastoral needs of celebrities requires discretion, flexibility, and safeguarding. Report by Susan Gray

Sophie Mutevelian

David and Carrie Grant

David and Carrie Grant

LONG hours, touring away from home, and Sunday being just another workday make it hard for performers to nurture the relationship with priests and parishes that most Christians take for granted. Help is available, however.

When the play Jerusalem opens later this month, all eyes will be on its lead actors Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook — but someone else at the Apollo Theatre is Theatre Chaplaincy UK’s senior chaplain, the Revd Lindsay Meader.

Present at the briefing before matinees, and familiar from dress rehearsals, Ms Meader is there to support cast, crew, and front-of-house staff cope with the unique demands of a performance. For Christians acting in the West End, this now includes Sunday working, part of an agreement brought in to help the sector recover from the pandemic.

The director of Christians In Entertainment (CIE), Chris Gibney, says that it is not unheard of for performers to go away on tour and return to their churches many months later to find that nobody knows who they are.

The broadcaster Edward Stourton had this experience when he returned to his Roman Catholic parish church in Brixton after lockdown to find that it had a new priest.

Mr Stourton believes, though, that anonymity has its blessings. “I go to church as a place to retreat to, not somewhere to think about current affairs or religion in a professional way. I’d rather just pray quietly at the back of the church. We spend quite a lot of weekends, when I’m not working, in France. Of course, nobody there has the remotest idea who I am, and that makes going to mass very nice.”

FOR performers who achieve fame young, the demands of rehearsing, recording, and touring may mean that they have never had the chance to be part of a church community, listening or half-listening to sermons Sunday after Sunday, and growing in faith in an organic way.

Mr Gibney calls them “baby” Christians, as they have come to faith while in the public spotlight but without a hinterland of knowledge and experience of church life.

Chris Gibney

Expecting all famous Christians to be fabulously articulate about their faith is unfair, Mr Gibney says: Christians in other walks of life are not held to the same standard. Performers who are fluent and charismatic while working from a script may stumble when expressing their own beliefs.

Much of CIE’s work, Mr Gibney says, is taken up with a “Nicodemus ministry”: counselling and supporting Christians after hours, with phone and Zoom calls to the cruise ships, entertainment venues, and film studios where members are working.

As well as the practical difficulties of practising faith in a global industry, some performers worry that association with Christianity will tarnish their reputation or alienate segments of their audience.

In the latest Pilgrimage series, beginning on BBC2 tonight (8 April), the reality star turned TV presenter Scarlett Moffatt talks about the stigma which she feels is attached to Christians from her generation.

Ms Meader says that popular images of Christianity as oppressive, misogynistic, and unsupportive of gay and trans people can make people in entertainment reluctant to share their faith.

“Sometimes, [people] feel that Christianity can have a bad name, certainly in terms of its attitude towards gender and sexuality. That’s certainly the perception. Whether it’s correct or not is a different matter. And so they don’t want to be associated with what’s often seen as something quite judgemental.”

NAVIGATING the tightrope of faith and fame is best taken step by step. “As someone once said to me, they find the best way of being a Christian in theatre is for people to gradually become aware that they’re Christian, and then not to be too much of a prat.”

Some performers take a different approach, and incorporate Christianity into their brand. In interviews, the actor David Oyelowo always emphasises his Christianity — something that is more routine in Hollywood, where the British actor has relocated, than in UK showbusiness.

The TV presenter Katie Piper, who became a Christian while recovering from acid-burn injuries, uses her social-media popularity, especially among young women, to bring new audiences to religious programmes such as Songs of Praise (Interview, 5 November 2021). The comedian Tim Vine, a CIE supporter, is known in the industry for his no-swearing, family-friendly comedy.

When entertainers approach Ms Meader and say that they would like to explore their faith further, she advises them to find a local church. “I usually encourage them to think about becoming part of a parish, or attending a church on a more regular basis. It’s important for them to have a spiritual home, a particular community that they can tap into.”

The Revd Lindsay Meader

But, for the church in question, having a well-known face join the congregation can bring issues of etiquette that they have not previously encountered. The celebrity may need some “gentle protection”, Ms Meader says, “to give them space so that they can come quietly on their own terms. And, obviously not to have a big fuss made about them. And to give them a chance to come as their everyday selves, not whatever the persona is that they’re perceived to have or to be.”

On a practical level, this may be a matter of making good entrances and exits. “In the early days, for someone who has got a high profile, it can be as simple as coming to the service but maybe not staying for coffee.

“So, they can actually be part of the service and part of the congregation, but they avoid any danger of unwanted attention, discreetly leaving just at the end of the service, and then gradually perhaps staying once or twice and seeing how it goes.”

TWO Knightsbridge churches lead the field in integrating well-known figures as part of an Anglican community. Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), has been one of the most successful churches at maintaining relationships with high-profile worshippers.

As the home of the Alpha course, HTB has decades of experience of throwing a protective cloak around famous and non-famous young adults — the average age of participants is 27— as they open themselves to faith in a secular society.

In the summer of 2020, the then Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud was one of the thousands in lockdown to enrol in Alpha online, to invite friends and “to share my faith not in a threatening way”. He later posted on Twitter about a streamed service at St Barnabas’s, part of the HTB network, saying that online worship fitted in around his playing and training schedule in a way that, in real life, attendance never could.

While there is no admission that there is anything as formal as a celebrity manager at HTB, the 7000 people who attend the church network’s long weekend, Focus, are formally asked not to approach well-known participants for photographs and autographs, but to treat them the same as everybody else.

Campers reserving spots for Focus in July are reminded on the booking form that filming and photography are banned during ministry, to protect everyone’s privacy. And celebrities have responded well to this sensitivity to their needs.

From the conversion of the glamour model turned singer Sam Fox in the late 1990s, to Geri Halliwell in the early 2000s, and the current support of Bear Grylls and Miranda Hart, HTB has found a way of making the famous feel at home in the pews.

Or not necessarily in the pews. Some of the pastoral work may happen off piste, in less formal settings.

The Old Etonian Vicar of HTB, the Revd Nicky Gumbel, plays squash with fellow OE Bear Grylls; and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall have visited. When Mr Gumbel said, in his Carols by Candlelight address last December, that “royalty is in the house”, it was open to multiple interpretations.

Edward Stourton

Before his address, the star of BBC’s Showtrial, Tracy Ifeachor, read the lesson. Miranda Hart spoke at HTB’s Leadership Conference in 2017, and is known to contribute ten per cent of profits from Miranda merchandise to Resurgo, the church’s youth employment project.

The need for trust and discretion is paramount. St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, is open on its website about its familiarity with high-profile baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and the protocol needed if the royal family are present, when “the Lord Chamberlain’s Office will liaise directly with the Vicar and Parish Office.”

The Revd Richard Coles has reflected on his curacy at the church, baptising a premiership footballer’s baby, and discovering that the godparents were also premier league players: he was surrounded at the font by all his footballing heroes, but still had to perform his priestly duties.

But the present Vicar, Canon Alan Gyle, argues, understandably, that to discuss the details of caring pastorally for the rich and famous is to instantly compromise his ability to do it.

BECAUSE churches that get celebrity pastoring right have to remain tight-lipped, churches that get it wrong can remain in the dark about why their famous parishioner suddenly left.

The singer David Grant, who experienced stardom in the early 1980s with the soul/funk duo Linx, says that friends formed a “praetorian guard” around him when he was first exploring Christianity at Kensington Temple.

“Certainly, in the early days, the church did a good job of protecting us. There were people looking out for us.”

But his wife, Dr Carrie Grant, who co-presents BBC Radio London’s Saturday Morning with her husband, and is currently training for ordination at Luther King College, remembers the problems.

“We became Christians in ’86. But it was very difficult for David, when we first became Christians, because there were lots of people who immediately wanted to pray with him. There were an equal number of people that wanted to pass their demo tapes to him.”

Having experienced Kensington Temple, HTB, and mega churches, the Grants never found anywhere that they would feel comfortable taking their showbusiness friends, and so founded their own house church, the Space, at their north-London home.

Churches should treat the intrusive attention celebrities can receive in a religious setting as a safeguarding issue, Dr Grant says. “You’re just finding your way, you’re just discovering about God’s being, and it’s so incredible and amazing.

“And all of your past is churned up, and you’re vulnerable in that moment. We really do need to protect people from other people almost. It’s a horrible thing to say, but a lot of the time, they do need that.”

Uninvited media attention, rubbernecking fellow worshippers, and a liturgical calendar shaped by pre-industrial working practices have coalesced to create what HTB has hinted at and Dr Grant makes explicit: a discreet system of meeting the pastoral needs of the high-profile, under the radar and away from prying eyes.

“There’s a lot of communities, though, there’s loads of underground meetings. In our house, we’ve had weddings, we’ve had funerals, we’ve had every kind of baptism. There’s a lot that goes on that people are just not aware of; it’s just happening, it’s just underground. And that’s the way to protect it.”

CHURCHES that want to meet better the needs of people in the public eye have to appreciate the transience of their working lives, and the intensity of their schedules. Fame offers life-changing opportunities for travel and influence, but does not protect against relationship difficulties, substance, or mental-health issues.

“The Church as a whole is very geared towards the poor, which is fantastic and very noble; so it’s hard for us and in society not just to say ‘let’s open a foodbank’,” Dr Grant says. “But some of the most needy people we meet are very successful. They’re just needy in a different way. You can strike gold, but what you wanted was water. And if you haven’t got water, you’re just as poor as the next person.”

Yet some celebrities do have deep relationships with local churches. Tamsin Greig steers clear of ever discussing her faith with the media, but is a regular fund-raiser for her church and neighbourhood causes in Kensal Rise.

Adjoa Andoh is a Reader at St John’s, Herne Hill, and describes herself as belonging to the sweary, feminist, socialist wing of the Church of England.

She has used her fame as Lady Danvers in the Netflix series Bridgerton as a platform for issues that she cares about. “Lady Danvers has brought me a platform to advocate for things I feel are important: fair trade, safe passage, and Malala: I can make some noise.”

Sir David Suchet has a long relationship with St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, and has read at their carol service.

Parishes, then, can play a vital part in supporting the spiritual development of entertainers. “For Christians, I think it can be a really important blessing to be part of a community that is supportive. So, that would be the goal: to find a way into a church as a regular member of the congregation,” Ms Meader says.

And there is no need to be star-struck or tongue-tied if a star comes through the lych-gate, Mr Gibney says: “Just ask some questions, get some insight into what that sort of life is about. And ask the second question: how can I support you?”

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